(2019—Director: F. Gary Gray)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
Besides the behemoth that was Titanic, the blockbuster to see and remember fondly in 1997 was Men in Black (MIB), starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. The adaptation of the early ‘90s Malibu/Marvel comics by Lowell Cunningham stands alongside 1984’s Ghostbusters as a brilliant and iconic fusion of science fiction and comedy. (Also, this technically makes MIB the first “good” big-screen Marvel adaptation, predating the commercially-successful yet critically-mixed Blade by a year.)
After that first film, though, the franchise entered its current period of widely-spaced sequels with unpredictable returns. 2002’s MIB II, while a hit, drew a mixed critical reception for its classic sequel failure of repeating the first MIB but bigger, undoing parts of its predecessor’s ending in the process. (I remember watching MIB II in the theater as a child with my family, then promptly forgetting it afterwards.) A decade later saw the release of MIB 3. The 2012 threequel was a mild return to form thanks to its compelling, if complicated, time travel conceit and particularly the casting of Josh Brolin as the younger version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K. Acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson was reportedly an MIB 3 fan and even shed some tears watching it, which I’ll gladly admit is one thing P.T.A. and I share in common.
To suggest that my experience of watching MIB: International was close to that is a stretch if there ever was one.
Allow me to explain first: Critics normally encounter new releases before most of the movie-going audience does, and I hope to reach the point in my career where that becomes standard. Lately, though, I’ve benefited from post-opening weekend perspectives due to the information about the production that gets released during that immediate wake, and such is especially the case with MIB: International (see revealing article here). Resurrected from failed talks to cross over with the 21 Jump Street movies, International’s original screenplay (by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway of Iron Man fame) was allegedly “edgier” and “more timely”, and incoming director F. Gary Gray and co-stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson were set to realize that vision. This venture didn’t sit well with Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, the husband-and-wife producing couple who, alongside executive producer Steven Spielberg, have handled MIB since the first film. Everything from script rewrites to directing a few specific scenes to even color correction created an ever-widening rift between Parkes and Gray. This lasted all the way to when they both presented final cuts for testing, and Parkes claimed victory due to having final cut privilege from the start.
Given this context, it no longer surprises me why, upon first viewing, MIB: International made me feel nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sure, the melding of practical and CGI effects to bring the extra-terrestrial species to life remains quirky and sensational. Hemsworth and Ms. Thompson retain the chemistry that began with their roles in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarök, and the supporting cast carries their weight. Kumail Nanjiani undoubtedly charms as the diminutive alien Pawny, who pledges loyalty to Agent M following the destruction of his people.
It becomes quite apparent as the movie drags along, however, that these quality elements can barely stand alone. Ms. Thompson’s Agent M gets introduced as head-strong and booksmart to off-set her lack of social skills and perceived insanity, but her growth from this foundation recedes fast. Hemsworth’s Agent H apparently has hit a career slump despite being London branch’s top agent, but story revelations arrive too late to explain his apparent ineptitude and lax effort as an MIB agent since 2016. Agent H’s friendly rivalry with Agent C (Rafe Spall, of whom I struggle to view as a native Englishman after The Big Short) would’ve been the perfect place to show more contrast between H’s unseen hotshot past (beyond the opening scene) and current underperformance. Elsewhere, there’s Rebecca Ferguson as Riza Stavros, a notorious three-armed weapons dealer and past flame of Agent H. Ms. Ferguson doesn’t give a horrible performance, but her one sequence portraying this scorned alien lover gives off an air that’s both lackadaisical and scene-chewing, making her a potential target for 2019’s Worst Supporting Actress Razzie category.
Worst yet is MIB: International’s villains. The script builds up for this planet-conquering parasite known as the Hive, but also gives us alien twins (French dancers extraordinaire Les Twins). We hear that these alien twins are from a galactic region the Hive reportedly already invaded, but then the alien twins and the Hive have different appearances. Furthermore, when Agent H says, “We’ll do anything to protect our world,” they reply, “So will we.” So are they the Hive? Are they the infected species of a besieged planet? Or are they pawns of the Hive, scouting other planets for them to conquer in order to spare their own planet? There’s hardly an explanation, and it confuses the audience to throw in an avenue for sympathy with the villains when they’re largely an unfeeling parasite.
The production turmoil explains perfectly why MIB: International is rife with tell over show. When on-set tension prevents you from shooting this or that scene to help your story unfold more visually, what else can you do but insert the information somewhere into the dialogue in an on-the-nose way? Everyone on this project needs to learn two key lessons and learn them fast: First, know what film you’re making before you start making it. Protracted negotiations that end up coming to naught are always preferable to a lackluster product that no one wants. And second, it’s clear that casting Marvel Cinematic Universe players as the stars in a non-MCU movie will never ensure success. Men in Black may belong to Marvel thanks to Marvel buying Malibu Comics in the early ‘90s, but that doesn’t mean that it’ll benefit like an MCU installment would. That idea must be put to bed for good, and with it, this trailing tragedy of a once-promising sci-fi comedy franchise.
Parental Note: Men in Black: International has been rated…
- PG-13 by the MPAA “for sci-fi action, some language, and suggestive material”;
- 12A by the BBFC for “moderate violence, threat, sex references,” and “language”;
- A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “much bloodless violence, a couple of gruesome images, implied nonmarital sexual activity, a few mild oaths, and occasional crude and crass language”; and
- —1 (Caution: Discretion advised for older children) by Movieguide for being moderate on language and violence, and light on sex and nudity.
Plot Summary: Concealed in plain sight on planet Earth, the Men in Black (MIB) keep the peace among the universe’s diverse intelligent species, human and alien alike, and one woman wants in. As a child, Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) witnessed MIB agents use their neuralyzers to wipe her parents’ memories after an alien causes a neighborhood disturbance. After twenty years and repeated rejection from various government agencies, Molly eventually stumbles upon MIB’s New York-based US branch, where she impresses branch head Agent O (Emma Thompson). Now probationary Agent “M”, Molly gets dispatched to the London-based UK branch, headed by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she teams up with hotshot Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), known for stopping an invasion of the Hive, a planet-invading parasite, alongside High T a few years back. Now, Agents M and H must travel the world to pursue leads suggesting that the Hive might try to conquer Earth once more.
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.